Planned Happenstance; or, not having a plan

Joshua Crofts
Friday 22 March 2024

We often think we need to plan our careers. Is there another way?

Many say that career plans are crucial. According to the careers platform The Muse:

Whether you’re at the start of your career with only a faint idea of what you want to do, or you know exactly what you want but aren’t sure how to get there, having a career plan is the key to plotting your next steps.

A recent LinkedIn article, entitled Why You Need a Career Plan: A Guide to Career Planning, agrees:

Do you have a clear plan for your career? If not, you may be missing out on opportunities for growth, advancement, and fulfillment in your work.

Even I once said:

… you need to know what you’re trying to achieve before trying to implement steps to achieve it. 

This is probably advice you’ve encountered before. Plans have their merits, making us feel like we’re not wasting time or going in a circle.

But perhaps they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.

Plans: overrated?

John D. Krumboltz, the late Professor of Education and Psychology at Stanford University, said:

What-you-should-be-when-you-grow-up need not and should not be planned in advance. (Krumboltz, 2009, p. 135)

For Krumboltz, plans are overrated. Life’s uncertainties mean that following a plan is often impossible. How many of your plans, in any area of your life, have turned out, are turning out, just as you intended? The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley, after all.

Committing to them can thus be a recipe for disappointment and frustration. ‘That didn’t go to plan’ is a phrase we seldom use positively. And we often use it to blame ourselves.

Planning also sounds a lot like hard work. If it weren’t, there probably wouldn’t need to be so many articles written about how to do it.

An alternative: ‘Planned Happenstance’

Instead, Krumboltz emphasised:

the importance of engaging in a variety of interesting and beneficial activities… remaining alert to alternative opportunities, and learning skills for succeeding in each new activity. (Krumboltz, 2009, p. 135)

For Krumboltz, it’s best to develop the right habits of mind and behaviour to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, whether they appear through planning or luck (‘happenstance’). He thought (Krumboltz & Levin, 2004, p. 2) we should:

  1. be aware of our surroundings
  2. take a risk, even with rejection as a possible outcome
  3. be adaptable and open-minded.


This doesn’t mean we sit around and do nothing. Instead, we take proactive steps to learn, by doing things like:

By learning, we also create opportunities which, with our habits of mind, we are best placed to exploit.

This doesn’t mean that Krumboltz was against planning, full stop. Some plans, especially ones which are short term, can help. But he believed that being reflective, open, active, and trying:

to take actions to open up opportunities even when you don’t know the outcomes, to take advantage of chance events, to keep your options open, and to make the most of what life offers (Krumboltz & Levin, 2004, p. 3)

is a better bet in an unpredictable world where what you can best control is yourself.

What next?

If you want to talk about what these ideas might mean for your career, feel free to book an appointment with a careers adviser.

You can also watch an interview with Krumboltz.

Works cited

Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The Happenstance Learning Theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17(2),135–154.

Krumboltz, J. D., & Levin, A. S. (2004). Luck is no Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in your Life and Career. Impact Publishers.

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